In 1987, when the husband and I were starting our life together in Denver, we rented a tiny third-floor apartment in a white Victorian on Lafayette Street. Our bedroom snugged into a former attic and had just enough headroom between its sloping walls for two average-height people to stand up without hunching. The love nest, we called it.
On Sunday afternoons, we would ride our bikes home from the Auraria Campus, feed our cats, then walk over to Zach’s, the fern bar a few blocks away. There, we cheered on the Denver Broncos and their new quarterback, John Elway. As we came and went, we’d see our next-door neighbor, Louie, kneeling down with a sharp pair of scissors, cutting his grass by hand. Louie was short and lean, with a full head of steel-gray hair. He had a ready smile and a distinct accent from his birthplace–Vietnam, I think. His front yard was about the size of two picnic tables pushed together, and he loved his lawn with an obsessive love. Every few days, he knelt and snipped each tuft of grass, then lowered his head and squinted across the carpet of green, making it level, making it perfect.
Last week, sitting on a flat stone in my own front yard, I thought a lot about Louie. Like almost everyone, I was absorbing news of the pandemic and toggling unevenly between shock and grief. My lawn was scattered with two-inch dirt cores, left by the hollow metal spikes of a hand-held aerator. Pushed into soft earth at regular intervals, the aerator expels smooth-edged tubes of soil that lay about like large, stilled worms. As the sunlight lengthened and focused, I sprayed the hose back and forth over the grass, then gradually dissolved cylinders of dirt one by one. I watched the grains of soil melt back into the turf–each small, neat hole filling with muddy water that slowly drained away.
Lawn grass is a strict task-master; every chore has a non-negotiable order and season. Aerate, fertilize, water, mow. Repeat. How tedious! I used to think. How time consuming! But last week, instead of complaining as I used to about how growing grass well only creates more work, I thought, Wow, soon I’ll be able to mow again. That’ll take at least fifteen minutes. When you’re filling time, every minute counts.
The slow days I spend obsessing about my lawn are spent, in fact, waiting to see how quickly our hospitals will fill, how many more losses will be mourned in this neighborhood and around the world. The sorrow of these pandemic days is hard to fathom. In so many ways, I am privileged. All of my loved ones are fed, housed and–so far–well. Yet I feel as if a family member has died. Most mornings, I wake up and cry. I am confused about the smallest things, and I watch my mind attempt to sort the world into before the pandemic, and after. I need to do something. Wishing I could do much more, I work in my yard.
I water my lawn and think about Louie laboring hour upon hour, manicuring his tiny patch of Kentucky Bluegrass, far from his first home. Was Louie’s lawn so perfectly loved in partial response to his traumas, to the horrific loss of a predictable world? Standing in my yard, waving my hose over small holes punched into the ground, I wished I could go back and learn about Louie’s life before he came to Denver and started cutting his grass by hand. What happened in his long long life, before the oblivious young couple moved in next door? In our fragile human lives–where grief can never be measured–I feel the wisdom of his devotion to perfection, to one lush and comforting rectangle.